The American Standard Code for Information Interchange is a standard seven-bit code that was proposed by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) in 1963, and finalized in 1968. Other sources also credit much of the work on ASCII to work done in 1965 by Robert W. Bemer.  ASCII was established to achieve compatibility between various types of data processing equipment.

ASCII, pronounced "ask-key", is the common code for microcomputer equipment. The standard ASCII character set consists of 128 decimal numbers ranging from zero through 127 assigned to letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and the most common special characters (see ASCII Table).


Computers can only understand numbers, so an ASCII code is the numerical representation of a character such as 'a' or '@' or an action of some sort. ASCII was developed a long time ago and now the non-printing characters are rarely used for their original purpose.  ASCII was actually designed for use with teletypes and so the descriptions are somewhat obscure. If someone says they want your CV however in ASCII format, all this means is they want 'plain' text with no formatting such as tabs, bold or underscoring - the raw format that any computer can understand. This is usually so they can easily import the file into their own applications without issues.  For instance, Notepad creates ASCII text, or in MS Word you can save a file as 'text only'.

As people gradually required computers to understand additional characters and non-printing characters the ASCII set became restrictive. As with most technology, it took a while to get a single standard for these extra characters and hence there are few varying 'extended' sets. The Extended ASCII Character Set also consists of 128 decimal numbers and ranges from 128 through 255 representing additional special, mathematical, graphic, and foreign characters (see Extended ASCII Table).

Extented ASCII Table

ASCII is not the only format in use out there. IBM adopted EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code) developed for punched cards in the early 1960s and still uses it on mainframes today. It is probably the next most well known character set due to the proliferation of IBM mainframes (see EBCDIC Table).

A set of national character sets for interchange of documents between IBM mainframes. Most EBCDIC character sets do not contain all of the characters defined in the ASCII code set but there is a special International Reference Version (IRV) code set that contains all of the characters in ASCII. Several national versions have been updated to support the encoding of the euro sign (in lieu of the currency sign).

Unlike virtually every computer system in the world which uses a variant of ASCII, IBM mainframes and midrange systems such as the AS/400 tend to use a wholly incompatible character set primarily designed for ease of use on punched cards.  EBCDIC uses the full 8 bits available to it, so parity checking cannot be used on an 8 bit system. Also, EBCDIC has a wider range of control characters than ASCII.


Copyright 2002, Jonny Pham